There hasn’t been much good
news lately for George W. Bush, with his poll ratings at record lows
and new atrocity stories emerging every week from Iraq. But he can take
some comfort this week from a key by-election result in California.

Bush
is facing Congressional elections on 7 November this year, when
Republican control of the House of Representatives and (more remotely)
the Senate will be at risk, and the battle is hotting up. Hence the
extraordinary expenditure of more than US$10 million (about A$13.5
million) on a single by-election, held to replace Republican Randy
Cunningham in California’s 50th district (just north of San Diego).
Cunningham was forced to vacate his seat after being jailed for taking
bribes from defence contractors.

As a local political scientist (quoted in the Los Angeles Times) said, “Never have so many spent so much to accomplish so little”. Republican candidate Brian Bilbray held the seat
despite a 9% swing to the Democrats. In the circumstances, that’s
pretty good going for the GOP; compare the by-election last August in
Ohio’s 2nd district, when the Democrats scored a 20% swing.

Unlike
Ohio, California is not going to be a major battleground in 2008: no
Democrat will even get close to the presidency if they can’t carry
California. But the by-election was an opportunity for the Republicans
to try out some campaign themes, especially the fear of illegal
immigration (sound familiar?), which seems to have played well for
Bilbray.

Some of the media are trying to make this a positive story for the Democrats: yesterday’s New York Times
said that the 50th “should be one of the safest Republican districts in
the country”. But the 2004 margin was only 11.1% (figures at Psephos);
most Congressional districts are at least that safe, since partisan
redistribution processes design the boundaries to protect incumbents.
That’s one reason why control of the House changes so rarely, and why,
despite Bush’s problems, Democrats still face an uphill task in
November.

Also in California, state Treasurer Phil Angelides won the Democrat primary
to run against Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in November –
a race we can expect to hear more about in the coming months.

Peter Fray

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